I’d say I’m, like, 65% introverted.
To my close friends, that kind of statement makes sense.
I’m a homebody most of the time, but throw me into a quiet social gathering where interesting conversation is traded like so many Pokémon cards, and suddenly the extrovert in me has arrived.
Unfortunately, the idea that someone can fall on a spectrum of temperament, which ranges from extreme introversion to extreme extroversion, is a foreign one to most people, says Susan Cain, author and patron saint of introverts.
As the thinking goes, people are either shy or outgoing. There’s rarely a middle.
The result of that false dichotomy is a culture that prizes extroversion above all else. If you’re quiet, you’re inept. If you’re loud, you’re bold.
But as Cain convincingly argued in her 2012 book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” and now champions in her global campaign to rebalance the power between the quiet types and the social butterflies, shyness has almost nothing to do with being introverted.
“Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating,” Cain wrote in “Quiet.” “Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.”
The trouble most people run into, Cain says, is that they have never had the language needed to express the difference.
To give you an example, I’ve always been introverted. But when I was a little kid, I was also terribly shy. I felt uncomfortable speaking up when I had something to say, and I avoided playing with other kids on the playground.
Since then, I’ve gained enough confidence to realise I’m probably not the first person to be confused when I don’t understand something — so I ask. When I meet people, I use my curiosity to keep the conversation flowing, though I’m still very much an introvert — that is, a person who prefers low stimulation.
Until reading “Quiet,” I never had the words or frameworks to tell my shyness and introversion apart. At some point in my life, the shyness faded away, leaving only the introversion. But without a way to know which was which, I falsely assumed I was still shy.
I look back on high school parties I didn’t want to go to and wish I’d known it was a feeling of overstimulation, not social ineptitude, that urged me to stay home. Think about all the emotional energy I could have saved.
Reading “Quiet” assured me people can possess qualities of both temperaments. Bill Gates is a gregarious introvert, Cain says. Barbra Streisand gets terrible stage fright, despite being an extrovert through and through.
It also taught me shyness and introversion can go hand in hand, even if they’re not the same thing.
“Many shy people turned inward, partly as a refuge from the socialising that causes them such anxiety,” Cain explains. “And many introverts are shy, partly as a result of receiving the message that there’s something wrong with their preference for reflection.”
The difference between shyness and introversion can be a subtle one. But it’s empowering for the chunk of the population like myself that would rather read a book then head to a party — unless the conversation is likely to be amazing.
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